Monthly Archives: November 2011

Choosing God. Choosing Light. Choosing Now.

The Rev. Deacon Katharine Holland preached this sermon for the First Sunday of Advent. 

“. . . we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  [Isaiah 64:8]

“Restore us, O God . . .”  [Psalm 80:7a]

As we begin this Advent season, our readings focus on “end times,” when God will return in the form of Christ Jesus; & the history of the world, as we know it, will come to its conclusion.  In the mean time, we are charged to “Keep awake,” to be ready for that ultimate reckoning with God.

If you’ve been reading the daily lectionary, you heard the prophet Joel warn of “Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision!  For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.”  [Joel 3:14].  And it is a decision that we are each called upon to make.  When faced with this ultimate decision, where do we fall in our beliefs?  Have we gained the wisdom to choose God?  Have we allowed God to be at work in our lives so that there is no question of where we stand?  How much of a force is God in our day to day existence – how malleable have we become in his hands, how ready to give up our own desires for God’s more profound authority?

Choosing God means choosing Light, when all other options lead to darkness.  It is only in being open to this God of Light that we allow ourselves to be molded in his image – “to put on the armor of light”, as it says in today’s Collect.  We have the invitation in our grasp; but do we choose to accept its consequences, dying to self & putting on Christ?

Choosing God means allowing God to work in us right now, in the present.  It’s not something to be put off to a more convenient time – when we’re more ready, less busy, older, more mature, ready to give up some of the worldly pleasures we enjoy; or, hardest of all, letting go of our own feelings of freedom – doing what we want, when we want, & the way we want, with no interference from God.  This hope in God’s ultimate presence in our lives comes at a price, & it does not exempt us from acting in the present.

Christian hope lies in the turning over of our lives to God NOW . . . fully, without procrastination, without conditions, believing that the future belongs to God.  If we are to have any hope of a future, it is with God & with God’s help, for only God can overcome our failings as they exist in us – personally, socially, economically, & politically.  We must be ready to respond, to surrender to God’s grace, & be open to His will, so that the Word can become flesh in us.    If we are not acting from this place of union with God, then we act alone from our own ego.

As committed Christians, we are being asked to act, “by faith, in the needy present [but] in light of the fulfilled future” which is yet to be revealed.  [Craig Mac Coll 12/1/96]   We can then act in harmony with God, to bring hope to a world mired in chaos & despair.

As one commentator observed, “When all the devices & desires of our hearts have been exhausted, & there is nothing more we can do – as persons, as communities, as nations, as a world – what is left?  Watching & waiting.  Yet many of us find waiting & watching difficult in our busy, activity-oriented lives.  We like to keep busy.  We like to do.  We like to get on with it.  Because, perhaps, if we stop to wait or to watch, we might discover the loneliness & emptiness that lie below the surface of our activity . . .

And that is the first step in Advent – the honest discovery inherent in waiting & acknowledging our need for God’s coming.”  [“Synthesis”, 11/30/08]

Advent is about our yearning for God & our seeking to find fulfillment for that yearning.  It “is about waiting.  About wondering.  And yes – it is about fear, the fear that the way will be lost.  And in that fear, Advent is also about hope.”  [Richard J. Fairchild]  Because “waiting,” says Henri Houwen, “allows us to be people who can live in a very chaotic world & survive spiritually.”  [Henri Nouwen, “Watch for the Light”]   We can make a choice to detach ourselves from all the busy-ness & hectic build-up to the holiday & instead learn to quiet ourselves –  to watch, to ponder & to live into what is unseen, but infinitely more valuable in the end.  “No wonder”, one author speculates, “the ambience of Advent – in contrast to the noisy agitation of the Holiday Season – is one of hushed wakefulness.”  [“Synthesis”, 11/30/08]  Stay awake!  Be alert to the movement of God in your life! And accept the challenge of living fully in each moment, in God’s present & into God’s future – for it is – all of it – in God’s hands & waiting – spread like a banquet – for our taking.

In closing, I’d like to share a prayer I came across from Richard John Neuhaus:

“Father in heaven,

you came to earth in the person of your Son, Jesus Christ.

As the coming of your Spirit upon Mary

inspired her to welcome the One who is her child and her lord,

so also open our eyes to the gift already given.

Forgive us our restless searching for your presence

according to our expectations . . .

Fill our every moment

with his threefold advent.

As then he came

and now he comes

and will one day come again,

awaken us to the then & now & one day

of his presence in this present moment.

As we put on the Lord Jesus Christ,

may all our time be clothed by eternity

until we find ourselves at last

in the home you have prepared for seekers & searchers

who, in our seeking & searching,
were hopelessly lost.

Give us the grace to surrender to being found.

This we ask in the name above every name, the name of Jesus Christ.

Amen.  Let it be.”

God is here. God is coming.

Everlasting God, grant that we might indeed be liberated from bondage and brought together under your most gracious rule.

Last Saturday morning, Liberty Street in Salem was deserted and shrouded in fog. I left the hotel early to meet a friend for a walk and coffee. I stood on the sidewalk and took a deep breath, enjoying the fog, the smell of fallen leaves, and the quiet. Suddenly the moment was shattered by a piercing beep-beep-beep, sort of like the sound school buses make when they back up. But I didn’t see any school bus. The source of the noise was an electronic lift hoisting enormous Christmas wreathes onto each lamp-post.

The kingdom of this world is always hungry for buying and selling. The Kingdom of this world says that Christmas is about buying and selling, about proving our worth by being as busy as possible, about all manner of excess. We all know this, and many of us fight against it by being very intentional in how we enter into the season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas that begin next Sunday. Counting down the weeks in December through the practice of worship (for example), reminds us that Christmas is about Jesus, and keeps us rooted in December as a season of preparation for the celebration of God made flesh.

While I was at convention I learned about The Advent Project, which is about restoring the season of Advent to the full seven-week season that it used to be, beginning sometime in the second week of November. Advent used to be seven weeks long, up until the early middle ages. So what, right? What is interesting about this idea is that if you look at our Sunday readings beginning in early November, they sound a lot like Advent readings, replete with prophetic utterances about end-times, about the day of the Lord, about the reign of God.

The prophets we hear this time of year—Zephaniah, Ezekiel, Isaiah—spoke to a people beset by increasing economic instability for all but the very wealthy, about scarcity of resources to meet basic needs, and a political structure that didn’t reflect the best interests of the people. Sound familiar? Only the very last Advent readings are about the incarnation, about God coming to us as a little baby. The rest of the readings….well, you heard some of them last week, about the Day of the Lord, about God’s measuring how we use our talents, one lifetime at a time.

The season of Advent is not just about preparing for the baby Jesus, but also about thinking even more deeply and seriously than we have already been doing about God’s kingdom, about the reign of God. The readings start doing this long before Thanksgiving, right around the time that the kingdom of this world starts digging out Christmas decorations.

The Advent readings point us away from the kingdom of this world and toward the Kingdom of God, the reign of God, God’s most gracious rule, as today’s collect describes.

God’s reign is what Jesus points to in today’s gospel. This Sunday is called “Christ the King” because we see Christ seated on the throne of glory. However, the most important aspect of today’s gospel (in my humble opinion) is not Christ’s kingship but Christ’s reign.

The Advent proclamation that the reign of God is near proclaims the end of the world as we know it. The new world that Christ came to proclaim is the world where, quite simply, the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given something to drink, the naked are clothed, those in prison are visited, and strangers are welcomed. Once Jesus is no longer living among his followers in the flesh, the, and we, are called to proclaim this new world in his place.

About fifteen years ago I went through training to be a volunteer chaplain at the Multnomah County jail. I was eager for some kind of training because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I will always remember what the head chaplain, who did the training, told us. He made us read this portion of Matthew and then said: “Jesus says to visit. He doesn’t say we need to do therapy or rehabilitation or even evangelism. We just visit.” Phew! All of us are qualified to proclaim the Kingdom of God.

As we contemplate the end of the world as we know it, and the coming of the new world of God’s reign, how will we proclaim the good news of the kingdom in our midst? Who is the stranger waiting to be welcomed? Who is hungry, waiting to be fed? Who is naked, waiting to be clothed? Who are the least of these in our midst?

We often say that the kingdom of God is already here and not yet here. God is here; God is coming. Look around: Do you see the kingdom of God? What does it look like? Tell someone.

Lifetimes of Faith

Many thanks to Heather Lee for this week’s sermon

I hate scheduling dental appointments. Sometimes, I skip prayer before
bed and fall asleep with an episode of Star Trek Voyager instead.  I
have been known to cheat on my budget by using my credit cards.
What is it about knowing what we ought to do, then not actually doing
it? Do you have some things that you know you ought to do, things that
are even good for you, like exercising and eating more salad greens,
that you just can’t seem to actually do?

Sometimes, we know what we ought to do, but we don’t the resources or
the energy to do it. Often, however, it’s not a matter of resources at
all; it’s a matter of perception. Why is that? Why is it so hard to
overcome perception so we can do those things we do have the resources
and energy to do? Every one of those things I mentioned is something
that I would actually benefit from. So, why am I so afraid to do the
right thing? Because sometimes, the fear of the possibility of failure
is greater than the consequences of failure itself. Let me say that
again – The fear of the mere possibility of failure is greater than
the actual consequences of failure. And I’m only talking about salad
greens.

Still, did any of you hear this mornings readings in this fearful way?
Did you hear Zephaniah talking about days of wrath and the Psalmist
talking about being consumed by wrath and Paul with his sudden
destruction and Matthew’s weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer
darkness? I admit, that was what stood out for me when I first looked
at these lessons. Stuff like this makes it really hard to trust God –
makes it really hard not to worry too much about failure – makes it
hard to trust that actual failure isn’t as scary as the possibility of
failure.

All that doom and fear does makes the servant with one talent from
today’s gospel a lot more sympathetic. Believing his master to be “a
harsh man, reaping where he did not sow and gathering where he did not
scatter seed” he took his talent and hid it in the ground, rather than
use it. For this servant, the fear of the possibility of failure was
greater than anything else he could imagine.

I think that the difference between this slave, with his one talent,
and the other slaves with their two or five talents is an imagined
scarcity. One doesn’t sound like a lot. One doesn’t sound very
abundant. But I think that depends on what you have one of.
The parable talks about talents. It is a trans-literation rather than
a translation of the Greek word talanta. But where English uses the
word talent to mean those things we have natural aptitude for and can
enhance with skill and training, talanta is a monetary term for about
15 years worth of income for a day laborer. Life expectancy being what
it was, this was the equivalent of a lifetimes worth of skill and
talent and money.

Think about that for a minute, a lifetime of labor.

Jesus is using money as a metaphor in this parable but he’s talking
about faithfulness. That one talent is no small thing.  We receive
this parable at the very end of his earthly ministry, at is a time
when he is investing heavily in the faithful relationships he has
built with his disciples. If the in-breaking kingdom of God that his
life and ministry have begun is going to continue, it is going to be
in the context of human lifetimes, in the context of human
faithfulness.

A lifetime of faith. It’s all we can do sometimes to take things one
day at a time, but what might those days be if we considered our
faith, our labor, in the wonder of a whole lifetime? And in this
parable, some are given as many as 5 talents. What might that even
look like?

I think it looks like us. It looks like liturgy. Within the context of
our faith, we are handed from generation to generation, lifetimes
worth of faith. Not just our own lifetime and it’s potential, but the
work of the whole communion of saints. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer that
we have directly from Jesus, it’s in the Creeds that connect us to the
clarifying moments of the fourth century, it’s in the sacraments of
baptism and eucharist, where inward grace is made explicit for the
whole community.

Does it change the size of your faith to know that it is composed of
the investment of lifetimes of faithfulness? It changes mine.
The lessons today were full of this trust and faithfulness. Zephaniah
says we are consecrated guests of the Lord. The psalmist says God has
been our dwelling place since before the earth was even formed. Paul
says that we belong to the day, so awake or asleep we live in Christ.

Two servants in this parable have entered into joy.

So why is, then, that when I listen to Scripture, I hear so loudly the
fear of the saints who have gone before? This because I have stopped
listening to God and to Scripture in faithfulness and start listening
in fearfulness. Sometimes it seems easier to hear the bad things that
could happen than to hear the trust in the good things that do happen.

If we believe that all there is to God is a master who demands much
and offers little, who doesn’t have room for failure, then it’s not
surprising if we don’t notice these parts. If we believe that we have
only one talent, and don’t believe that talent is worth a whole
lifetime of faithfulness, then it’s not surprising we are afraid to
grow that faith.

But, I wonder, what might we be missing, because we are afraid of the
possibility of failure, afraid of letting God down?

Because our lives matter. And because there are consequences to how we
nurture and maintain the kingdom of God, there is a lot of fearful
talk in the Scriptures. As so many parables remind us – the harvest is
not complete, the kingdom is now and not yet, the first fruits have
been resurrected but not the last.

The full abundance of our faith is not the work of ourselves in
isolation. It is the heritage of the whole communion of saints. It is
the faithfulness of those who have come before to enrich us, and it is
our legacy to enrich those who come after. Our children and
grandchildren, our neighbors and friends, people on the other side of
the globe and people on the other side of the century.

In truth, none of us who have even a mustard seed of faith have only
one talent of faith. We have this abundant cornucopia of faith. And
even if it were one talent, a lifetime is so much bigger than we can
even imagine.

I look around this space, at all of you, and I see this abundant
faith. The results of New Consecration Sunday reinforced for all of us
that we have abundant faith, abundant grace. Our one lives are
bursting with the abundant talents that we bring, that we receive,
that we share. Listen to the faithfulness and know that it matters.

What is Home Communion?

Anytime and for whatever reason you are not able to come to church (your illness or your child’s illness, hospitalization, recuperation, etc.) we now have a group of people who will bring Communion to you. Although this is sometimes viewed as being an imposition on the time of the Eucharistic Minister, it is not that at all. It is a ministry offered to everyone in the St. David’s community – young, old, or in between.

The Eucharistic Minister is sent from the Sunday morning service with a Home Communion kit (small chalice, paten, linens, bread, and wine) and shares an abbreviated service with you and any family or friends who may be with you and want to join. In this way, it is an extension of the morning service, an extension of the community, a way of including those who are unable to be at the church for services and sharing our love and the Eucharist with each other.

If you ever wish to receive Communion away from church, please call the office at 503-232-8461 and leave a message for Dan or Deacon Katherine and one of our Eucharistic Ministers will call you to arrange a time for Communion – to share our common bond.

This group of people have felt called to serve in this special ministry of connecting our community by way of the Eucharist and want to be utilized, so please don’t hesitate to call.

In Christ’s Love and Service,

Dcn. Katherine

Laurence the Deacon and the meaning of eternal life

Almighty God, knit us together in one communion and fellowship with all the saints.

All Saints Sunday comes several days after the end of a little mini-season in our church calendar that begins with the Eve of All Saints, also known as Halloween J, continues with All Saints Day on November 1st, and concludes with All Souls Day on November 2nd. Tradition has it that on All Saints we honor Saints-with-a-capital-S, and on All Souls we honor the heroes in our own lives who have shaped us and guided us, as well as loved ones who have died, whether or not they were our heroes. In the Latino culture the All Souls tradition, Dia de los Muertos, is much more of a big deal than All Saints. Today we’ll celebrate a little bit of each: Saints-with-a-capital-S and all those whom we love and see no longer.

Saints-with-a-capital-S are saints who have lived out their faith in their own time and place in such a way that their stories illuminate ways that we can live out our faith in our time. It has been my custom to pick a “Saint of the Year” for my sermon on All Saints Sunday.

And so, this is the moment I know you’ve all been waiting for…[drumroll….]…may I have the envelope please….

St. Laurence!

Laurence the Deacon died in the year 257, during one of the many persecutions that characterized the first three centuries of Christianity.

There are not a lot of stories about Laurence’s earthly life and ministry, except about his final witness, which is probably the most important for us today. He was martyred during the Valerian persecution, named after the Roman emperor of the day. This particular persecution, the Valerian persecution, focused on the confiscation of church property. The emperor’s henchman cornered Laurence and demanded information from him the whereabouts of the church’s treasures. He expected Laurence to reveal, under duress, the location of the local church’s stockpiled silver and gold. Laurence’s primary role as a deacon had been to distribute church funds to the poor and sick. He asked the Roman soldiers to give him a few days to round up the riches they sought. When they met up again, he was surrounded by the poor and needed whom his church had supported. He said to his interrogator:

These are the treasures of the church.”

This response made Laurence’s examiners so angry that—the story goes—he was cooked on a gridiron. It is because of this gruesome end, according to my least reverent book on saints, that Laurence is the patron saint of cooks. He is also the patron saint of the poor.

In his final witness, Laurence reminds us that what matters is ordinary men and women, ordinary people whose names we never know, but who are treasures nonetheless. Laurence reminds us that our lives, and our church’s life, will not be measured by what we earn, but by what we spend.

* * *

            All Saints and All Souls invites us to bind ordinary needs and ordinary lives with the eternal, and to ponder the big faith-questions about life after death. In my life, I’m privileged to have conversations with people about their faith. People tell me they believe in Jesus, but they don’t believe in heaven. Or maybe they believe in heaven, but they don’t believe in resurrection. Or they believe in Jesus’ resurrection, but don’t believe in anybody else’s resurrection. There’s no right answer. I always talk about eternal life as life lived to the fullest, here and now. That’s always been how I understand Jesus’ invitation into the Kingdom of God.

When we renew our baptismal covenant, as we will in a few minutes, we begin with the Apostles’ Creed. We say we believe in

the communion of saints,…
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

I wonder how many of us do believe this, really. The resurrection of the body, the real eternal life of ordinary people, not just Jesus, is something we don’t talk about much. We either assume that most people don’t believe in it, or that some do and some don’t, but it’s not a belief people in churches like ours debate.

Last week I came across an article published in the Huffington Post that has been floating around on Facebook and Twitter, so you may have read it as well. The article is titled “All Saints Day: The Courage to Live Eternally,” by the Rev. Dean Snyder from Foundry United Methodist in Washington, DC. Be prepared: I’m going to reference the article far more generously than I normally do in a sermon.

Snyder writes that he is concerned “by how often the suggestion is made—subtly or explicitly—that believing in life after death is a sign of weakness or cowardice.” He quotes the well-known atheist-physicist Stephen Hawkings as saying that heaven is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” implying that believing in life after death is “a form of …denial by those too weak to face the truth….” For Snyder, “choosing to believe in life after death may actually be an act of courage.”

“If Easter is when Christianity celebrates the resurrection of Christ,” he writes, “All Saints is when Christianity celebrates the resurrection of the rest of us. The focus of Easter is the victory of Jesus over death and the grave. The focus of All Saints’ is resurrection and life eternal for the rest of us.”

“[I]t can be an act of courage to believe in eternal life and to strive to live lives consistent with this belief. It takes courage to live as though our lives matter eternally—even if they seem to us very ordinary, even frustrating and disappointing. It takes courage to believe that our lives matter beyond this lifetime…when so much of what we do seems trivial and even pointless. It takes courage to do the good and just thing in terms of eternity, rather than what is easiest, even when it will cost us something in the short-term and nobody will much notice or care anyway.”

I wish I’d written that!

“[F]or those without much power or recognition in this life,” he goes on, “it [is] a courageous affirmation to believe that each one of our lives and the way we live them matters eternally. Such people of faith should [be] honored, as we seek to do on All Saints’ Day.”

“All Saints’ insists that it is not we who pass away. It is not the human community, …the communion of saints, who pass away. It is the world that passes away. The communion of saints is eternal. Nations and empires will pass away, but love is eternal.”

I really wish I’d said that!

St. Laurence saved people’s lives by caring for their basic needs, acting as though they mattered. Laurence made a difference, and he is part of the communion of saints eternally. And so are the unnamed, voiceless ones whom he dedicated his life to help. And so are we. How will we live as though our work, our love, our lives truly matter?